A duchess is no one without her friends. We all need someone to gossip with, and scones just aren’t as tasty without someone there to tell you calories don’t count when you’re talking shop. One of my such chums is debut author Erica Monroe, and today I’m excited to host her on our very own Dashing Duchesses blog.
But I’m not the only one with good taste in friends! You, too, may know her from her posts over at Teatime Romance. If you don’t pop over to Teatime every once in awhile (and you should!), then don’t fret; you may know Erica from her very active Twitter feed. (I was just a scared newbie when Erica took me under her wing and showed me how much fun the Twitterverse can be!)
Without further ado, here is Erica to tell us a little bit about the morbid side of our dear Regency. — Emma Locke
St. Giles Rookery, as featured in Sketches by Boz
What I have to say now might be shocking to you duchesses, but I’m afraid in our London underworld a nasty occupation occurred right under the noses of our wealthy bon ton. While our duchesses of course are never short on blunt—and would never indulge in something as revolting as trade, let alone illegal, dirty trade—it is an unfortunate fact that during the long Regency, many denizens of the London rookeries were devastatingly poor. Many of the more “legal” jobs, like flower-selling, chimney sweeping, baking, and tailoring produced a small salary that was barely enough to live on.
The more resourceful London resident with lax morality turned to an age-old trade that produced quite profitable results with significantly less time spent at labor: grave robbing. Body snatchers, referred to during the regency era as resurrection men, used the city’s stringent laws on what corpses could be used for anatomization to their advantage. Prior to the Anatomy Act of 1831, doctors were only allowed the corpses of executed criminals for use in their surgical studies. With so many crimes ending up with punishments of transportation, imprisonment in Newgate on one of the various hulks (gigantic ships anchored in the ocean which housed prisoners in inhumane conditions), there were far more doctors than bodies to go around and the medical profession faced stagnation.
The Anatomist Overtaken by the Watch by William Austin, 1773 from the Museum of London
So what’s an equally resourceful doctor to do when he wants to make scientific discoveries and train his apprentices? He turns to the services of his friendly neighborhood resurrection man. For a fee, the resurrection man will dig up a fresh cadaver and the doctor can proceed with his research. One notable doctor doing just this was Astley Cooper, who in 1821 was knighted for removing a tumor from George IV’s head. Cooper was obsessed with dissection, willing to cut apart anything from a mouse to an elephant, but his favorite was human corpses. He spent so much time dissecting that his need grew until he was receiving corpses daily at times. Cooper used Tom Butler, who was a porter in the dissecting room at St. Thomas, to secure him corpses and kept in touch with him even after Butler left the hospital. Unrepetent about his ill-gotten use of corpses, Cooper delivered a rousing speech in 1828 to the House of Commons Select Committee—claiming that his knowledge of anatomy stemmed almost completely from dissection, and the want of legally gotten subjects put a serious damper on that.
Portraits of William Burke and William Hare from 1828, courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library
It was not until 1831 that the laws governing cadavers for use in anatomizing was changed, due in part to the morbidly shocking murders perpetuated by Edinburgh men William Burke and William Hare. (I, being morbidly-minded, found this case so fascinating I used it as a jumping-off point for the villain in my debut novel, A Dangerous Invitation.) The Duchesses will be shocked that I dare bring this case back to attention—as England was horridly scandalized and frightened that such mass murderers existed in Scotland—but I truly believe that were it not for the mania of Hare and Burke and the string of copycat murders in England, the anatomy laws would have been much longer in being restructured.
Irishmen Burke and Hare met in Edinburgh in 1827, and became fast friends, perhaps because both was like-minded in wanting to make a profit quick. Hare was deemed the crueler of the two, but they’re both pretty despicable if you look at the facts of the case. Both were also in relationships society would have deemed disreputable: Burke was a bigamist, and Hare had married his former landlord’s widow (who he’d been having an affair with before the landlord died). Marital issues aside, the real problems for the people of Scotland began when Burke moved into the lodging house run by Hare and Margaret Logue.
There’s a movie made called Burke and Hare, with Simon Pegg, Isla Fisher, and Andy Serkis and I now desperately need to see it.
In November of 1827, one of their elderly lodgers died. Hare, as any pragmatic man would be, was quite miffed that the lodger had died as he owed Hare rent. Again, as any logical men would do when they’re well aware of the resurrection problem in their town, Hare and Burke decided they’d cash in on their losses and sell the lodger’s body for profit. They met a Dr. Knox at the Anatomy School and he was quite willing to buy their body. A few weeks later, another elderly man became ill, and Hare and Burke seized upon the idea of more money and suffocated him. Dr. Knox took that body too, and so a scheme was born.
Hare and Burke originally concentrated on those who couldn’t fight back or wouldn’t be noticed: the elderly, the homeless, foreign travelers with no family. But greed struck them, and they became careless. They took the life of a well-known prostitute, and the townspeople were suspicious. Knox’s students identified her body. For awhile, Burke and Hare were more cautious after that, waiting for the buzz to die down and going back to their usual out-of-town guests policy. Yet even after this close call they couldn’t stop: a washerwoman met death at their hands, and even the cousin of Burke’s common-law second wife was smothered! All to feed the greatly increasing greed of Burke and Hare, who’d learned that at 10 pounds per body they could live pretty well.
It was their carelessness that finally did them in. They took another prostitute and her daughter, who were recognized again by Dr. Knox’s students. Dr. Knox, quickly realizing his great supply of bodies was at an end, was forced to deny all knowledge of their next victim and hide any identifying features: a mentally retarded boy nicknamed “Daft Jamie” that Hare and Burke had overpowered. Edinburgh was incensed, and this was the murder that would paint Hare and Burke in their media as psychopaths.
The Last Murder
Courtesy of Actual Education UK
When lodgers at the boarding house discovered their last victim, an Irish woman Burke had conned into believing he was related to her, the jig was finally up. The police were called and Hare and Burke’s sixteen murders were discovered. Proving once and for all that the threat of a noose around one’s neck will outlast any claims of friendship, Hare and his wife turned against Burke and gave testimony at the trial. Hare’s wife had to flee Scotland, and Hare himself is reported to have ended his life as one of London’s blind beggars after an “unfortunate accident” where workers threw him into a lime pit. Burke was executed, and a lot of Scottish people gleefully went to see him hang.
The nation was badly shaken up. No longer could they ignore the fact that resurrection men existed (though Burke and Hare were never truly grave robbers in the literal sense, as they didn’t dig up any graves and most of their victims were murdered by their own hands). Another murder, that of an Italian boy in Bethnal Green who lived off of showing his white mice, was committed in England by May and Bishop. May and Bishop’s intent to sell the body for profit was the final straw in an already quite filled camel’s back.
In 1832, the Anatomy Act was repealed and now the doctors were promised a quite frequent supply of unclaimed bodies from prisons and the workhouses. The resurrection business was finally dead and gone.
So, Duchesses, now that I’ve appalled you, let me know if you have any questions. The more disgusting and ghastly the better!
Erica Monroe writes romantic suspense set in regency London. Her debut novel, A Dangerous Invitation, Book 1 of the Rookery Rogues series, will be out December 2013. When not writing, she is a chronic TV watcher, lover of pit bulls, and shoe fashionista. She lives in the suburbs of North Carolina with her husband, two dogs, and two cats.
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